Atalanta have made a habit of defying the odds in recent years. Breaking into Serie A’s top four in 2017 was one example. Qualifying for this season’s Champions League, another. Yet when they lost the opening three games of their debut campaign, few expected them to progress to the knockout phase.
A draw against Manchester City in the fourth game brought some pride and respectability. But with no wins in their first four games, there seemed to be no way back for Gian Piero Gasperini’s men. Then, victory at home to Dinamo Zagreb gave them a glimmer of hope. They needed to win away at Shakhtar Donetsk in their final game with City winning in Zagreb to steal second place in the group. La Dea dominated in a 3-0 win, while City cruised past the Croatians. They had done it again.
Now, the much-lauded team from Bergamo will look to ruffle the feathers of Valencia in the last 16. Compared to the Italians, the Spanish side have a rich history in Europe. They reached the Champions League final twice (2000 and 2001). Lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1980 and the UEFA Cup in 2004. And won the European Super Cup twice (1980 and 2004). A domestic record of six La Liga titles and eight Copa del Reys also puts Atalanta’s lone Italian Cup win in the shade.
With such pedigree, it appears the Spaniards have the advantage. But Valencia are an anomaly. They are the third biggest team in the country, yet seem to exist in a constant state of crisis. Since Rafa Benitez oversaw their League and UEFA Cup double in 2004, they have hired 20 coaches. That period yielded a meagre two Copa del Reys (they sacked both winning coaches soon after). And a partially-built stadium gathers dust in the North West of the city after club debts halted work on the project in 2009.
In contrast, Atalanta are the model football club. In the last 10 years, they have employed three coaches. Their stadium is undergoing work to bring it up to UEFA standards with one stand complete and work due to begin on another soon. They also have one of the most envied youth academies in Europe. And they have remained solvent thanks to some smart player trading. At the end of the 2018/19 season, they were the second most profitable club in Serie A behind Lazio.
The two teams now meet in Europe for the first time with the first leg to be held at the San Siro Stadium. But what can the orderly team from Bergamo expect from their chaotic rivals?
Valencia topped a tough Champions League group thanks to a win at Ajax in the final game. The result was all the more impressive as the Dutch side had humbled them at the Mestalla in October. But this season has been played against a backdrop of upheaval.
First, the club fired popular Coach Marcelino before the group stage began. In two years at the club, he delivered one Copa del Rey trophy, two Champions League qualifications and a Europa League semi-final. Then, they released sporting director Mateu Alemany. Both were replaced by men of little experience. Albert Celades took the coaching reigns, while César Sánchez filled Alemany’s shoes.
Valencia-based journalist Noelia Holguín described the feelings of the fans towards the club’s hierarchy. “The fans feel disappointed, bewildered and defenceless. Marcelino’s goodbye was a blow to them. The owner, Peter Lim, and President, Anil Murthy, have shown they want power in all aspects, economic and sporting.”
Marcelino’s sacrifice was the result of a power struggle behind the scenes. “Any action, including those sports-related, must be taken by Lim or the President,” explained Holguín. “They think only of the economic and business side. Without taking into account the views of the technical figures.” She added, “Murthy described the coach and sports director as ’officials’ who must ‘execute the instructions of the owner.’”
Following their successful group campaign, Valencia looked in good shape. But January’s controversial trip to Saudi Arabia to contest the Supercup changed everything. Defeats to Real Madrid in Jeddah and away to Mallorca (4-1) in the league raised doubts. Then a home win against Barcelona delivered some welcome respite.
Defeat to newly-promoted Granada in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals brought more gloom. As did a 3-0 reverse to top-four rivals Getafe which dropped Valencia to seventh place in the league. On a positive note, only Ajax have beaten Celades’ men at home all season.
So how will they approach this game? Noelia Holguín offered her insight: “Valencia are not in a good moment – both physically and psychologically. They must be careful with counterattacks and set pieces. An away goal could be essential.”
But what about their strengths? “Their strength lies in their verticality and the connection of the midfield with the attack. Their most used system is 4-4-2. Captain Dani Parejo sets the pace while Francis Coquelin provides the security. And the width of Ferran Torres and Carlos Soler is crucial to harming opponents. But both they and Parejo have accumulated many minutes. Rodrigo is the focal point of the project and always delivers at the most important times. There is also hope for the resurgence of Gonçalo Guedes after more than three months out injured.”
And what weaknesses can Atalanta hope to take advantage of? “The weaknesses of Valencia are in defence. Without Garay (who injured a cruciate ligament last February), Celades has two options. Diakhaby, who is not delivering on the field. And Mangala, an experienced player but without minutes.”
Holguín admits Atalanta will be a tough opponent but hopes the Valencians can rise to the occasion. “Valencia tend to grow against the strongest teams. They need to hit the ground running and recover their scoring spirit. But above all, they need to give a solid and united image in line with the team’s history and achievements. And to play with attitude.”
It may not be the glamour tie of the round but it is one of the most intriguing. With two clubs reflecting very different sides of the modern game.